Finding Inner Peace
Yesterday I said I would dwell a little about peace in my blog, flowing out of the call to pray and work for peace I experienced both in the invitation to join in Sunday’s international day of prayer for peace and in the news of the horrible attack in the mall in Nairobi, the same city the young lady my wife Katharine and I were host parents for this past year attends school.
I hope all of you were able to meditate on the causes of heartache, conflict, violence, and war on International Prayer for Peace day, praying for their healing and committing to work to transform them. If not, I invite you to do so now and throughout this week. Let us have a week of praying for and working for peace.
One of the things that contributes to an inability to have peace in our neighborhoods, families, communities, and nations is our inability to find inner peace within ourselves.
In a recent sermon I put it like this:
“ How many people who nit-pick, second-guess, and tear other’s down, when you get them to sit down and share what’s really on their mind, do you find out really feel they never live up and that’s why they are so hard on others? How many people who put down other’s for being different, such as those who yell out hate speech toward gays or bully people with disabilities, do we later find out themselves are deep in some closet or struggling with some learning disability they are trying to cover up? More than you’d ever imagine. They can’t accept others being different, or not being picture perfect, because they have not yet accepted themselves as different. But when you begin to accept yourself just as you are, as God already has accepted you, you find yourself beginning to accept others.”
These people don’t have inner peace.
But inner peace can also be about not allowing the situations we are in to control us. 1 Kings 19 shows us just such a situation – where Elijah has had his life threatened, is surrounded by difficulty and so overwhelmed that he cannot see the many ways God is working with him and blessing him. Feeling overcome by it all, he flees to be alone in a cave.
Being overwhelmed within can lead us either to turn in and shut others out like Elijah, or project that frustration out on others through acting and speaking to them in ways that are more harsh and hostile than we should, turning our inner turmoil out into outward conflicts. In a way this is what the leaders in Jerusalem did to Jesus, according to the Gospels – they turned their fear of unrest into the action of putting Jesus to death out of fear.
In our individual relationships, in our communities, and on a national level, not knowing how to manage that emotional stress, that fear, and what the Dalai Lama calls “afflictive emotions”, can lead someone to act out those feelings in ways that hurt others – and lead communities to turn to scape-goating, discrimination, violence, and war against those that are different and thus they are afraid of.
What are some things we can do to develop inner peace?
1. Cultivate acceptance of yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, often it is the one who has not learned to accept his or her own self, own gifts and limitations, who is the most difficult with others.
Too often Christians get the idea that to be humble and loyal to God they must look down on themselves. I think about one person I met a few years ago who, who, whenever I asked him what he wanted prayer for, would say – Oh, don’t pray for me. I want all the prayer you would offer for me, offered for someone else. I’m not anybody. I don’t deserve your prayers.He would turn down every compliment, and lived life, head hung low, thinking he was worthless because that’s what he thought being humble was.
You even hear it at times in our songs at church, when we sing as if we are worthless to God, not knowing how God could ever deign to love us.
Look sometime at the example the Prince of Peace makes both in the Gospel and passages like Philippians 2. Jesus isn’t hanging his head down, believing he is not worth anything there. No, Jesus from the start knows he is equal with God. He knows, as he says in the Gospels, that He and the Father are One. Jesus knows he is loved, he is worth something. And it is because of this that Jesus is able to fearlessly put aside his own needs, serve others, and offer up his life for others. It is because of this he can be a man of peace for the whole world.
I would suggest that in order to be able to really know how to work together with others, to be people of peace, we need to know who we are. And, just like Jesus, you and I are not garbage to be laid out by the side of the road. We are worth something. You and I are precious to God.
Ephesians 1, verses 3-11, beautifully describes who you and I are – quite literally, the apple of God’s eye. I’m going to change the word “us” to “you”, to make it more personal, but listen and when it says “you” imagine your name there—
God … has blessed you in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose you in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined you to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. … You have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and you have forgiveness for your failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over you with wisdom and understanding. 9 … You have also received an inheritance in Christ. You were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design.
Hear that. Let it sink in. Who did God bless? You. Who did God adopt? You. Who did God choose? You. Who has God destined from the very beginning? You. Who did God find so worth it that God ransomed them with God’s own life blood? You. Who has full forgiveness and an inheritance that cannot be taken away? You.
Friend, you are no throw-away.
Christian author Marianne Williamson beautifully sums this up when she says “We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Until you really let that sink in, it will be hard to really be there for others, hard to work for peace.
2. Take sabbath
Which is another way of saying plan regular time-outs. When I worked as a mental health tech with children with anxiety problems, we would often teach the children to take a time-out when they became agitated and frustrated, especially if they felt they might let their agitation lead them to respond harshly or inappropriately. This isn’t to punish them, but so that they can cool off, relax, and get a better grip on their own feelings. We often fail to remember what was good advice when we were kids, remains good advice today.
In fact it is such good advice that the Ten Commandments encouraged Israel to take breaks. They were told there to take one day in seven off from work, stress, and labor to let their mind and bodies rest. What’s more the law God gave to them even went so far as later to encourage them to take one year in seven to let the land rest, and for them to rest as well.
In Genesis God models taking time out from the busy work of creating by resting on sabbath.
And though the New Testament clearly says in verses like Romans 14 that the letter of the law of sabbath observance isn’t required by God, we see Jesus modeling its spirit. Again and again when Jesus is surrounded by the stress and anxiety of the crowd’s constant needs and requests for help, Jesus leaves the crowd, goes to a solitary place alone, and both rests & centers himself through prayer and meditation.
Jesus models following the spirit of sabbath by taking regular time-outs from stress to ensure he does not burn out. Without doing so we allow our physical and emotional reserves to run out, so that we do not have the wherewithal to be there for others or even sort out our own feelings.
Without rest our exhaustion can get the better of us and we can make some pretty poor choices that hurt others, lashing out. This will stand in the way of us being able to be peace-makers.
In our constantly plugged in, constantly moving society, it is easy to get overloaded if we do not unplug, turn off the noise, and take some time to be. Yesterday I did so through simple acts like going to the gym to work off steam, taking some time to be in nature, walking through a local farmer’s market, and writing some poetry. All of this was much needed time of being with myself and being before God, which helped me re-charge after a 24-hour shift at the hospital.
How can you re-charge?
What is true of individuals is true of communities.
At times we need to take a step back at the workplace, in the church, or in our community groups. We may need a staff retreat, a time to engage in community-building, or changes to the routine that break us out of the patterns. Often such groups return reinvigorated with some tensions lifted.
I wonder, as cities, counties, and nations, how our responses to fear and threat would be if instead of acting on knee-jerk reactions of fear, anger, and vengeance, we sometimes took more of a collective pause to grieve, mourn, breathe, and center ourselves. It might be that other solutions to violence & warfare would emerge.
3. Engaging in centering activities
There are a number of activities which some people take part in regularly to help them develop more inner peace:
Mindfulness is an exercise aimed at helping you become aware of what is happening within your heart, mind, and life in order to help you be free from being controlled by anxieties and afflictive emotions you aren’t aware of. Often instead of becoming aware of them we push them down and try to hide them, but in reality those undealt with feelings of stress just grow. It is like filling a balloon with water. It will keep growing, growing, and growing as long as it the balloon is underneath the faucet. Unless you stop the water coming in or pour some of it out, the constant flowing in of water will make that balloon pop. These exercises are aimed at helping keep that balloon from popping.
The way most people practice mindfulness is to stop what they are doing, and sit comfortably in a chair, breathing slowly and carefully. They then pay attention to their breath, to the way their body feels, and what they are beginning to think and feel. Mindfulness is not about shutting off what you are thinking or clearing your mind. Instead you just let your feelings and thoughts go, like water flowing down a river. You observe, you notice what thoughts, memories, and feelings enter your mind, without judging them whether with approval or disapproval, and without trying to change or dwell on any of them. Just a few minutes of focused mindfulness a day can really help you reduce your stress. It does so by relaxing your body, relaxing the tension on your mind. But it also makes you aware of what is going on in your mind and heart, which helps you figure out how to better manage your life without just projecting your feelings on others.
One wonderful thing about mindfulness is that, though people usually do it just a few minutes a day in a set place and time, you can actually engage in mindfulness throughout your day just by taking a few seconds to pay attention to your breathing, to your senses, to your body, and to what you are thinking & feeling.
A great introduction to Christian mindfulness of the type that goes throughout the whole day is Brother Lawrence’s classic Practicing the Presence of God. Without using the word, Brother Lawrence describes methods of making mindfulness a moment by moment, daily practice so that we do as Scripture says and remain prayerful continually.
Meditation is very similar to mindfulness, but instead of just paying attention to how you feel, in meditation practices one focuses one’s attention on something set that helps you release stress . For example, you might recite a line of poetry, Scripture, or a pre-written prayer. You might focus your attention on nature for a few minutes a day, just taking in every detail you see. You might focus on a piece of art, an image in your mind, the words of a song, taking in every detail. Focusing on those details help you become present in the moment, taking one moment at a time and not being swept up in what has happened in the past or might happen in the future.
Believers often will use the Scriptures as a tool in meditation, reading over a set of Scripture over and over again to take in all of its many details, imagining themselves within either its story or the image its words paint a picture of. Lectio divina and imaginative visualization are two forms of meditation through use of Scripture.
Christians often will practice meditation through prayer as well. Centering and breath prayers use short statements that are repeated like “Christ, have mercy” that one either says repeatedly focusing on each word as in centering prayer, or throughout the day as in breath prayers.
These and many other forms of meditation help center the mind, clear away the stress and noise of life, carving out space and time for inner peace. And as the example of Elijah in the cave from earlier shows, it is often only through silencing that noise that we can hear the Prince of Peace’s still small voice guiding us in the way of peace.
In journaling, people write out their feelings, including feelings of stress and anxiety. By letting them out they keep them from just building up to a boiling point. Some people journal through blogs, through writing poetry or songs, and some people even combine journaling with prayer by writing letters to God.
4. Find someone safe to talk to about your feelings of stress
In a way the Bible alludes to this when it encourages us to confess our sins one to another in order to find healing (James 5). There is something healing about opening up to another person about what you are struggling about.
It may be a close friend, another church member, a pastor, a spiritual director, or a therapist, but it is is important to find others to lean on during your times of stress and anxiety. Finding that trusted other to share your own anxiety, fears, and deep feelings with can help free you to become a person of peace.
We also can go to God and talk to God in the same way, openly and honestly about how we feel. Philippians 4:6-7 puts it well when it tells us “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” By sharing our stress and anxiety with God we can find remarkable peace.
Psalm 126 describes laughter as a sign of freedom and liberation. I often say laughter is a sign of grace: we laugh when we face something that doesn’t fit but find by a gift of God’s grace we can go on anyway.
We often in discussing mindfulness and prayer forget the power of laughter. Taking time to play, to laugh, and to enjoy humor can help relieve your stress and cultivate peace. They are powerful tools in cultivating inner peace.
In closing, I want to share with you a song celebrating how God can bring us peace in the midst of trouble by Rich Mullins as well as the words of Psalm 46, which connect the willingness to be still – which these practices are aimed at doing – in cultivating the sort of inner peace that lets us destroy the spear and bow, the weapons of war, and thus embracing a lifestyle of peace-making.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,
= = =
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
6 The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah